Ghostwriter Diaries – Outlines

Notebook

I want to talk about outlines. For the ghostwriter of novels, the outline represents the brief, the whole brief, and nothing but the brief. It contains everything you need to know about the book you’ve been hired to write.

The outline for my current project runs to nearly 23,000 words. My finished manuscript will run to between 65,000–75,000 words. The reason the outline is so long is that it contains the entire story from beginning to end, broken into chapters, with all the major action blocked out, character motivations identified and even some important pieces of dialogue sketched in.

“What?” I hear you cry. “They’ve practically done all the work already. All you have to do is pad the thing out.”

I understand why you might think that, but it really isn’t how it works. An outline is no more a novel – even a partial one – than a dessert recipe is a baked Alaska melting in your mouth. There are three reasons for this. (Actually, there are almost certainly more, but three will do for now.)

The first point I want to make is that of all the sins a writer can commit, padding is most definitely one of the seven deadly ones. Turning an outline into a manuscript is absolutely not about filling in the gaps. It’s about deconstructing the content, understanding its intent, then creating fresh, invigorating prose filled with all the precision and energy needed to draw a reader into a story, and make them care enough to read to the very end.

The second point is that, however good an outline might be, you can probably make it better. For example, when it came to writing the scenes of magic that fill this particular trilogy, I baulked at the generic outlined descriptions of eldritch glows and fancy lightning. While they served the outline perfectly well, they just didn’t float my boat.

To replace them, I invented character-driven systems of magic based on … well, I can’t actually tell you what I based them on for fear of identifying the books. Let’s just say that the editorial team have given up trying to give me magical direction. They know I’ll only go off-piste. Instead, they just say something like: “The wizard uses magic to repel the invading army – Graham, do something clever here.”

The third thing is very simple: I never actually read the outline.

I’ll say it again, just to convince you that you heard me right.

When I’m ghostwriting a novel, I never read the outline.

“What?” I hear you cry (again). “How can you possibly do your job if you don’t read what they send you?”

Here’s how. When I get the outline, I don’t look at it. Instead, I break it into chapters, and paste each chapter into the “Notes” section of my working document. Only when I come to actually write the chapter do I refer to the next piece of outlined action. I use the term “refer to” deliberately. I try not to read it, just decode its intentions. Then I write.

You may be wondering why on Earth I’d choose to work this way. Doesn’t it make more sense to read the entire outline first – maybe even read it two or three time, just to make sure I’ve got the sense of it? Shouldn’t I at least make notes?

The answer – for this ghostwriter at least – is no. The tremendous value of the kind of detailed outlines I receive is that someone else has already worked out all those tricky moving parts of character and action, setting and plot. Their great danger is that, if I go into the work knowing the story backwards, the words I write will fall dead on the page. I really will be just filling in the gaps.

Here’s the thing. When writing my own fiction, I rarely if ever work to an outline. I prefer to go in bareback, usually with a general idea of where the story’s headed, but mostly blind to what’s actually going to happen until the events begin to unspool themselves. Even the ending is frequently in doubt.

This works for me because it keeps the writing spontaneous. It also gets my pulse racing (if you doubt that writing can be an aerobic activity, you’ve never done it properly). Just like the reader, I really don’t know what’s going to happen next. It makes my brain fizz, because writing blind is like painting a floor with your eyes shut – you’re always at risk of trapping yourself in a corner. It makes my brain fizz even more when, having trapped myself in a corner, I have to work out how the hell I’m going to escape.

In short, when I write blind, the words come alive.

For the ghostwriter, writing blind is next-door to impossible. Not reading the outline beforehand is my own solution to this conundrum. My editors would probably throw up their hands in horror if they learned this – I don’t think they know I work this way.

But, hey, you won’t tell them, right?

What do you think?

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